Job and career strategies for the economy.

Strategies for a Strained Economy

Nov. 2008

We’ve been through a few years of ever better good times in the industry, and now again, we are paying for it. While two years ago the options for restaurant professionals were endless, they are now..well less endless.

You know the problems: Rising prices, some municipal administrations like San Francisco passing ordinances which take hundreds of thousands of dollars of restaurant bottom lines, tight business entertaining budgets for banks, real estate and just about any other company dealing in large sums of money, home owners nervous about the value of their homes and in general less dining. Restaurants, too, are opening at a slower rate than they once did.
Should you be worried? It depends on where you are.

If you are in one of the main restaurant locations of the country, what the Americans are not spending foreign tourists are. American food now has a name and our restaurants are viewed by everyone from Beijing to Warsaw as one big culinary fire sale.

Rising prices are going to scare away some Americans, but let’s face it. With years of Emeril and Rachael Rae we have, as a country, developed a taste for good food without necessarily developing the skills and energy to prepare it. People may eat less, but they will continue to eat out.

So far it appears that the restaurants suffering most from the pull back, now termed "recession", are high end restaurants while more casual, lower priced quality restaurants are picking up a fair number of their clients. These customers are "slumming", to quote one business writer. In the past Recessions have tended to take out a greater percentage of the elite, top priced locations than bistros casual eateries.

What is more important to you is that the increased competition between restaurants for customers means that there is greater need than ever for qualified food and beverage staff, and there is still not enough of that.

Qualified is the operative term here. Whenever we go into a slump, the restaurant industry and every other business becomes a game of musical chairs with the weakest figures being eliminated for staff and management who can provide best service and product.

The fact is that there are not enough perfectly qualified people on the planet to feed the dining public. At least not right now, mortgage crisis or not.
How does this effect you? In a lot of ways.
Again, assuming you are qualified and professional, you will either be able to retain your current position or find a new one. Someone wants you.

The art of career advancement in even the worst of times, which these are not, is to be professional and realistic.

Realism dictates that you remain aware of financial circumstances of your current or potential employer and structure your compensation demands accordingly. Holding up an employer for an unrealistic raise is ill advised when bottom lines are down. During the last recession a few employers asked their staff to either do without their raises or to give a little back In general the people who agreed did all right.

It means that you as a player in what will to some extent be musical chairs are responsible for keeping yourself the more desirable employee not only by the brilliance of your product and knowledge but your consideration of the people you work with, your courtesy towards the people you work for and an entrepreneurial spirit towards the business. Whiners and malcontents are the first victims of difficult times.

Somewhat tighter times also mean that you cannot be as frivolous in career decisions. Each career step you take should be well thought out. Leaving a safe place for an insecure situation with more money is thinkable when everyone fights for chefs and managers, but now when a misstep may make it difficult to find the next position.

For some people the slumping economy will mean that a desire to change jobs needs to be put on the back burner, sometimes a blessing in disguise. Taking an extra year at a location enhances stability.

Really, common sense and caution are the two tools which can carry you through what currently promises to be a short lived problem. Looking before you leap rather than moving to an unknown part of the country is always wise, but more necessary during downturns.

Some restaurants will falter, or owners will tire of the problems and sell. If this happens to yours you will have to make some decisions. The first is whether you really believe this is going to happen, and the second is what to do about it. While communication with ownership is a good idea, it is not always effective. There are enough stories of chefs arriving at work to find a padlock after the owner swore that there was no plan to close. (and sometimes there wasn’t) Overdue invoices are not always an indication, but bouncing paychecks or POS systems which suddenly begin to fail on busy nights generally are.

If you have plenty of indications that this is going to happen you will want at least to keep an eye out for appropriate opportunities, or "what else is out there, even if you end up deciding not to do anything about it. The question of what to do when you think your restaurant will not survive is enormously tricky.

There is the issue of loyalty and some employers who announce forthcoming layoffs or closures will offer a bonus for you to stay until the closing. There is the question of your staff: First the horses, then the privates, then the officers may or may not be an imperative for you. You must realize that an owner with his back to the wall may be desperate and not act as rationally as he otherwise has or would, but you should also understand that bankruptcy is an option that has saved many a restaurant. The conflict between loyalty and your responsibility to yourself and your family is a difficult one. If, however, a very good position comes along, you should probably consider it rather than staying when there may not be another one.

One attitude that will make things a little easier is avoidance of anger or resentment towards failure. The more clearly you can see bad outcomes without emotion, the easier it is to move ahead.

If you find yourself looking for a new job, you need to prioritize the nature of your position. Many chefs persist in believing, especially when they are young, that the only position worth pursuing is one with highly innovative, labor intensive product. Managers persist in a similar vein, tending towards the prestige locations and passing up positions in well run companies. If your gift is that food or that service, then it's worth pursuing, but if it's not there, it's not there. Rather than looking at the prestige of a property, considering professional management and high standards of quality a good idea when diners are not entirely comfortable paying $100 for a bottle of wine.

For those who are out of work and can’t find an open door, which happens in good times as well, tighter economies require a little extra thinking. For one thing, holding out for perfection is always a questionable strategy. You can't wish the ideal job into being, and you may pass up some very good opportunities on the way. Deciding to take second best when nothing attractive comes along for a while, furthermore is also complex. Not waiting for you dream position is not the same as compromising your reputation and possibly your integrity with a rotten one. An alternative to this is taking a subordinate position in a good location where all involved understand its interim nature. Some of the top chef in the country have spent several months helping out buddies. It’s better, if you are in the A leagues, than taking a position in a middling location, which will stick, with you for a while. Catering or working in a an area where you have something to learn are good ways to keep cash coming in while your job comes through.

Recessions and slumps have an unexpected positive effect for both employers and employees, as least as far as positions and staff are concerned. It focuses people on their jobs and weeds out the chaff. When the economy returns, those who worked their way through it will be first in line for high staff demand facing a small supply – to which you will belong

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Tags: Job, career, chefs, closings, economy, hotels., labor, market, new, pastry, More…restaurant, restaurants, search, termination


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Comment by Jo Lynne Lockley on December 11, 2008 at 11:45am
These strategy pieces are for our candidates and potential candidates rather than being intended for owners. They relieve me of the necessity to say the same thing over and over. They appear about quarterly.

Obviously quality hiring is important at all times. It gets harder in a recession, since the increased availability of willing and apparently cheaper staff carries a skewed desirability ratio: More chaff to wheat. Easy enough to figure out: Those who would not put their shoulder to the wheel to get the business over the hump quit when asked to work more for the same salary, or because co-payments were raised, staff meals cut, or because of other impositions. The ambulatory labor pool contains enough early layoffs, who were by definition not the star employees of the business.
On the other hand, extremely valuable professionals are less likely to leave secure positions and tend to be loyal to their businesses, so Melman's recent comment that the increased labor pool is a blessing needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
Two of my clients/friends who have let go key people by necessity ("25% of my labor budget") garnered threats of legal action for it, so you are hardly going to be able to rely on references at this time. Anyone with an ex management employee on unemployment insurance is highly motivated to see them employed again and will accentuate the positive, even when there is little positive to report.
This sucker is a mess all around.

Comment by Mel Kleiman on December 10, 2008 at 5:56pm
Great ideas here. Never forget to Hire Tough or as Dilbert say 80% is hiring great employees and 20% is leave them alone so they can do their job. Or maybe more important asking them to tell you what they need to do their jobs better.




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